by Natasha Varyani
In November 2020, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit upheld the district court’s finding that Harvard University’s admissions policy comports with the law relating to affirmative action in higher education. Students For Fair Admissions v. Harvard is a piece of a larger effort directed by activist Edward Blum to dismantle the existing law on affirmative action. The case is one of three currently active lawsuits and the only one involving a private university, each an attempt by Students For Fair Admissions (“SFFA”) to reach the newly recomposed U.S. Supreme Court. At a time in our nation’s legal and cultural history when systemic racism is being examined in our legal discourse in myriad ways, the context surrounding the First Circuit’s decision in the Harvard case is essential to understanding what the ruling will mean for race-conscious admissions policies.
The Harvard case was manufactured by SFFA in the wake of the Supreme Court upholding higher education affirmative action policies in several high profile cases. Most recently, the Supreme Court twice reviewed and ultimately upheld the race-conscious admissions policies of the University of Texas in Fisher v. University of Texas. There, Abigail Fisher, a white student, did not prevail. After Fisher, SFFA identified a new strategy: to find a minority group disadvantaged by affirmative action policies. With a focus on Asian families with strong academic achievement and ambitious goals for their education, the plaintiffs in SFFA’s current cases bring a new perspective to challenging the use of race in admissions. This new perspective relies upon many of the stereotypes and biases already culturally prevalent about the “model minorities” and may very well be SFFA’s best chance yet to challenge the constitutionality of using race as a factor in admissions.
SFFA’s lawsuits are but one part of cultural grappling with the question of affirmative action in higher education admissions policies. In 2019, the medical school at Texas Tech University came to an agreement with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights under which it would stop using race as a factor in admissions. The agreement, reached 14 years after the Center for Equal Opportunity filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education, effectively declared the Trump administration’s position on affirmative action: namely, that race should not be a factor used in admissions. Betsy DeVos, as Trump’s secretary of education, made this position clear, signaling a policy position that echoed some of the tenets of the president’s promise to “Make America Great Again” and return the United States to some image of its supposed former version of itself.
Affirmative action suffered another blow in November of 2020, just days before the First Circuit announced its decision in the Harvard case, as California voters considered Proposition 16, an initiative that would have repealed the law prohibiting state-funded institutions of higher education from considering race as a factor in admissions. Proposition 16 would essentially have allowed for a return of affirmative action programs, and it came to the ballot in an election with historic voter turnout (and during a pandemic). Yet, despite the reputation of being a progressive state, Proposition 16 was rejected by more than 57%, or more than 9 million votes. It is worth noting that California is one of the most racially diverse jurisdictions in the nation, yet even in localities where liberal voting blocs prevailed in the presidential election, those same voters did not favor the progressive position on the issue of affirmative action.
One lens through which to view the outcome on Proposition 16 involves the concept of “preference falsification,” which has been used to understand and explain the way that groups collectively move and respond in social and political situations. The concept, developed in the mid-1990s by the economist and political scientist, Timur Kuran, has found renewed currency in political discourse relating to affirmative action and race in the modern, polarized political climate. Preference falsification is the act of misrepresenting one’s preferences because of perceived social pressures. “It aims,” Kuran wrote, “specifically at manipulating the perception of others about one’s motivation.”
This concept may explain why some liberal and progressive counties in California rejected affirmative action. Where individuals may perceive that the socially acceptable position is to favor affirmative action and its support of minority students in admissions, they may still cast their secret ballot in favor of their personal preference to benefit their own family and students. Nevertheless, according to Kuran’s historical research, a critical mass of preference falsification can lead to a cascade effect, where what is collectively considered to be socially acceptable changes much more rapidly than expected.
This brings us back to the First Circuit’s decision in the Harvard case. Though the decision may be lauded as a victory for proponents of affirmative action policies and the use of race in admissions, a closer consideration of the issue in a broader context reveals that the Harvard decision is unlikely to be the last word on the subject, even if the case reaches the Supreme Court. And even though the issue of affirmative action is being considered in the midst of both a profound social justice movement and a dramatic change in presidential administrations, a majority of the current justices of the Supreme Court would appear to be less inclined to uphold race-based admissions policies than any court since the first wave of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. This, combined with a global pandemic that has fundamentally changed the ways in which social groups interact with one another, make the concept of preference falsification both more resonant and unpredictable than ever. The First Circuit has ruled, but little remains settled.
Natasha N. Varyani is an Associate Professor at New England Law | Boston. She teaches in the areas of Property, Tax and Critical Race Theory. Before coming to academia, Professor Varyani advised mulit-jurisdictional entities on their tax positions. (Professor Varyani is of South Asian descent and was not accepted into her first choice undergraduate institution).